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Unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to Block Critics on Twitter

To many, his Twitter page has become the face of his presidency

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A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York ruled unanimously Tuesday that because Trump's Twitter account is a public forum.

A U.S. court ruling that it is unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to block critics on Twitter has reignited criticism of politicians who ban detractors from their social media accounts.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York ruled unanimously Tuesday that because Trump’s Twitter account is a “public forum,” he can’t block users who disagree with him. Since the earliest days of his administration, Trump has used Twitter to make on-the-fly policy, lash out at his critics and voice his opinion on virtually every subject. To many, his Twitter page has become the face of his presidency.

“The First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees,” Judge Barrington Parker wrote on behalf of the panel.

Lesson for politicians

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FILE – White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino listens to President Donald Trump speak during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House, Feb. 15, 2019. VOA

While Parker stressed the ruling does not extend to all social media accounts operated by public officials, First Amendment advocates said the decision nonetheless serves as a lesson to politicians who block critics from “private” social media accounts that often double as communication platforms with the public. There are at least a half-dozen other lawsuits pending against U.S. politicians, from county officials to governors, who have sought to silence their critics on social media.

“We hope that as a result of this decision, public officials will take note and recognize that they need to be able to withstand criticism from their constituents,” said Carrie DeCell, a staff attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which two years ago filed the lawsuit that led to Tuesday’s ruling.

Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed similar lawsuits against public officials, said the ruling should remind politicians that “blocking critics from an official social media account is unconstitutional.”

“Social media is the new town hall — once an official opens either up to the public, they can’t selectively exclude those whose views they disagree with,” Bhandari said.

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Trump has nearly 62 million followers on Twitter. His tweets are widely shared, sometimes hundreds of thousands of times, generating both deep praise and harsh criticism — all out on a free-for-all, no-holds-barred platform.

Despite the freewheeling nature of his Twitter page, Trump, who runs the account with the help of his social media director, Dan Scavino, is known to have banned several dozen followers in recent years.

The lawsuit was brought in July 2017 on behalf of seven followers blocked by Trump and centered on whether the First Amendment applied to @realDonaldTrump Twitter account.

Government lawyers representing Trump argued in court that it did not because Trump’s account was “private” and that he used it exclusively as “a vehicle for his own speech.”

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A U.S. court ruling that it is unconstitutional for President Donald Trump to block critics on Twitter. Pixabay

But lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the account is for all practical purposes a “public forum” and that Trump violated the seven individuals’ First Amendment rights by banning them from his page.

Both a district court in May 2018 and the appeals court on Tuesday agreed with the plaintiffs. After the district court ruling, all seven plaintiffs were quietly unblocked from Trump’s Twitter account. In addition, the Knight Institute asked for the unblocking of 20 to 30 others who had been banned by Trump. Most of those, too, were unblocked, DeCell said.

Trump is not the only politician sued over blocking social media critics. The ACLU is suing officials in Kentucky, Maine, Maryland and Virginia on behalf of constituents who were blocked on social media. In addition, it has sent letters to politicians in Nebraska and New York to unblock users or face lawsuits.

Demanding to be unbanned

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In April, the New York Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Republican Congressman and Trump ally Peter King demanding that he “unban” dozens of constituents on Facebook.

King had argued that he had the right to block people from the “Congressman Peter King” Facebook page because it was a campaign account, and not one used for his congressional work. But the ACLU countered, “King wrapped the page in the trappings of his office and used it as a tool of governance.”

In response, King in May created a new, official Facebook page that will not ban users based on their views while continuing to use his original page for campaign purposes.

“We are pleased that the congressman agreed to launch a new Facebook page that will serve as his official government account from which he will not block users,” said Antony Gemmell, a staff attorney at the NYCLU.”Similar to [Tuesday’s] ruling on the president blocking people from his Twitter account, the congressman cannot block people from his official government Facebook page simply because he disagrees with their opinions.”

The Justice Department said it was “disappointed” with the appeals court’s decision and was “exploring possible next steps.”

“As we argued, President Trump’s decision to block users from his personal Twitter account does not violate the First Amendment,” DOJ spokesperson Kelly Laco said.

Hans von Spakovsky, a legal affairs fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the appeals court made “a very basic mistake of law and a basic factual mistake” and that the Justice Department should appeal the decision.

“The First Amendment only applies in a public forum such as a public park,” von Spakovsky said. “But Twitter is not a public forum. Twitter is a private company.” (VOA)

Next Story

Trump: Taxpayer-Funded Family Planning Clinics Must Stop Referring Women for Abortions Immediately

Ahead of a planned conference Tuesday with the clinics, the Health and Human Services Department formally notified them

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FILE - A Planned Parenthood clinic is seen June 4, 2019, in St. Louis. A Missouri commissioner on June 28, 2019, ruled that the state's only abortion clinic can continue providing the service at least until August as a fight over its license plays out. VOA

Taxpayer-funded family planning clinics must stop referring women for abortions immediately, the Trump administration said Monday, declaring it will begin enforcing a new regulation hailed by religious conservatives and denounced by medical organizations and women’s rights groups.

The head of a national umbrella group representing the clinics said the administration is following “an ideological agenda” that could disrupt basic health care for many low-income women.

Ahead of a planned conference Tuesday with the clinics, the Health and Human Services Department formally notified them that it will begin enforcing the ban on abortion referrals, along with a requirement that clinics maintain separate finances from facilities that provide abortions. Another requirement that both kinds of facilities cannot be under the same roof would take effect next year.

The rule is widely seen as a blow against Planned Parenthood, which provides taxpayer-funded family planning and basic health care to low-income women, as well as abortions that must be paid for separately. The organization is a mainstay of the federally funded family planning program and it has threatened to quit over the issue.

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Taxpayer-funded family planning clinics must stop referring women for abortions immediately. Pixabay

Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen said in a statement that “our doors are still open” as her organization and other groups seek to overturn the regulations in federal court. “We will not stop fighting for all those across the country in need of essential care,” Wen said.

HHS said no judicial orders currently prevent it from enforcing the rule while the litigation proceeds.

Clare Coleman, president of the umbrella group National Family Planning & Reproductive Health Association, said “the administration’s actions show its intent is to further an ideological agenda.”

Abortion opponents welcomed the administration’s move. “Ending the connection between abortion and family planning is a victory for common-sense health care,” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, said in a statement.

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Known as Title X, the family-planning program serves about 4 million women annually through independent clinics, many operated by Planned Parenthood affiliates, which serve about 40 percent of all clients. The program provides about $260 million a year in grants to clinics.

The family planning rule is part of a series of Trump administration efforts to remake government policy on reproductive health.

Other regulations tangled up in court would allow employers to opt out of offering free birth control to women workers on the basis of religious or moral objections, and grant health care professionals wider leeway to opt out of procedures that offend their religious or moral scruples.

Abortion is a legal medical procedure, but federal laws prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman.

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The head of a national umbrella group representing the clinics said the administration is following “an ideological agenda” that could disrupt basic health care. Pixabay

Under the administration’s rule, clinic staff would still be permitted to discuss abortion with clients, along with other options. However, that would no longer be required.

The American Medical Association is among the professional groups opposed to the administration’s policy, saying it could affect low-income women’s access to basic medical care, including birth control, cancer screenings and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. By law, the family planning program does not pay for abortions.

Religious conservatives see the regulation as a means to end what they call an indirect taxpayer subsidy of abortion providers.

Although abortion remains politically divisive, the U.S. abortion rate has dropped significantly, from about 29 per 1,000 women of reproductive age in 1980 to about 15 in 2014. Better contraception, fewer unintended pregnancies and state restrictions may have played a role, according to a recent scientific report. Polls show most Americans do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

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The Trump administration’s policy echoes a Reagan-era regulation that barred clinics from even discussing abortion with women. It never went into effect as written, although the Supreme Court ruled it was appropriate.

The policy was rescinded under President Bill Clinton, and a new rule took effect requiring “nondirective” counseling to include a full range of options for women. The Trump administration is now rolling back the Clinton requirement. (VOA)